What Is Net Neutrality?

For months, it seemed nearly every media figure was in hysterics over the impending repeal of net neutrality. Then, net neutrality was repealed… and nothing much changed. So what exactly is net neutrality, and why do so many people have such strong opinions about something they don’t understand? Jon Gabriel, editor-in-chief of cuts through the hysteria to bring you the facts.
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Net Neutrality means that the government will—one day—control the internet.

“Wait a second!” I can you hear you saying. “That sounds bad.” But almost everyone you know says that Net Neutrality is good. Doesn’t “neutral” mean that no one is picking winners and losers, that everyone is equal?

Maybe according to the dictionary, but not according to the people behind the Net Neutrality movement. For them, “neutral” means the government regulates the internet like a public utility—and that means bureaucrats making key decisions about how the internet is run.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2015.

The Federal Communications Commission—or FCC—under the Obama Administration, came up with Net Neutrality rules and regulations and imposed them on consumers. No open hearings—they just did it.

Here’s what they said: Internet Service Providers, or ISPs—AT&T, Verizon, and other companies that lay the cable that goes to your house—are basically monopolies like your typical utility company. To prevent abuse of this position, Net Neutrality rules prohibited them from charging websites different prices no matter how much or how little bandwidth they use.

But this is exactly the opposite of what utilities are allowed to do. Electricity providers, for instance, are allowed to create pricing tiers—the more you use, the higher the price goes. If you use significantly more power than your neighbor, you pay more for the privilege.

“Net Neutrality” forces ISPs to charge all users the same price no matter how much data they send through the internet.

It’s a bad idea. Here’s why:

The internet consists of a physical infrastructure consisting of cable and phone lines that carry the data—we call it “bandwidth.” But of course, there’s a limit to how much data it can carry. In 2014, just two companies, Netflix and Google (which owns YouTube), consumed more than 52% of the total bandwidth of the entire internet. All those data-heavy movies and videos clog up the “pipe.”

To combat this massive resource drain, the ISPs floated the idea of creating “fast lanes”: bandwidth that would be dedicated to the big users in exchange for higher usage rates. You use more, you pay more. Believe me, I’m no fan of ISPs, but shouldn’t they be allowed to charge companies more if they use more bandwidth?

Furthermore, if companies like Google and Netflix have to pay higher prices for more bandwidth, they’ll be motivated to find new ways to push more data through the “pipe.” And creative startups would no doubt see a great business opportunity to do the same thing.

End result: More efficient, faster internet. Consumers win.

The big bandwidth users didn’t see it this way. Instead, they lobbied for the new rules to prevent the ISPs from charging them differently than anyone else. Naturally, they want to pay as little as they can for bandwidth. So, they mounted a big PR campaign to convince the public to back the new regulations. And it worked. How could it fail with a name like “Net Neutrality”?

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